Manure Manager

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Keeping on top of Technology

April 29, 2008  by Paul MacDonald

The Shipman manure application
business in Iowa has kept on top of technology by being pioneers in
using GPS for manure application.

    The Shipman manure application business in Iowa has kept on top of technology by being pioneers in using GPS for manure application.

    Iowa’s Mark and Tom Shipman recently celebrated their tenth year of being in the manure hauling business, a decade that has been marked by growing regulations and heightening scrutiny of manure hauling and application.

    “We built our own hog barns in 1993 and have been through most of the hot regulation periods,” says Mark Shipman. “In 12 years, we’ve seen the industry change dramatically.”

page14Iowa’s Shipman manure hauling and
application business runs four Balzer tanks—their original 6,000-gallon
unit and three 6,350-gallon tanks—and applied some 32 million gallons
in 2004.

    But, says Shipman, regulation seems to have finally reached a plateau. “We’ve all been under the microscope, but I would say that this is finally letting up a bit. I think a lot of it has to do with education, with the average person realizing what we are trying to do.”

    The manure application side of the business is now actually more regulated than commercial fertilizer application, he notes. “When you get down to it, we have more rules and regulations. They can drive to a creek or river, and spread fertilizer right up to it. That’s not the case with manure.”

    While it may not be possible to impose further regulations on an already heavily regulated industry, “what is in place is going to stay there, and be enforced,” says Shipman.

    Along with all the changes, he reports, has come a heightened awareness of the nutrient value of manure on the part of farm operators. “The good side of this is that farmers are realizing the benefits of nutrient management, and are beating down our doors wanting to buy manure from us.”

    In terms of meeting regulations, the Shipmans take pride in the quality work they do. Part of that quality effort means keeping up with technology, which in their case meant being pioneers in the use of GPS in manure application. They started doing work with GPS in 1997 with their customers in the concentrated hog farm country of northern Iowa.

    “We bought the first tank built in the United States with a GPS system,” notes Shipman. And—he adds—that GPS-equipped Balzer tank is still out there in the fields working well for them today.

    The Shipmans use Ag Leader PF 3000 GPS units, which are installed—along with the Balzer Rite Rate system, a Krone flow meter and a Raven 660 controller—on their three Balzer Magnum 6350 tanks.

    “The number one reason we went for GPS is the DNR,” explains Shipman. “When they come in and take a look at our GPS applications, they know where we are putting the manure, how many gallons per acre we are applying, the section we are in, the county we are in and the township we are in. We are actually drawing an application map each time we do a field.”

    With the Ag Leader GPS mapping system, ably supported by SMS software on Shipman’s home PC, he is able to get extremely detailed application information, with samples done every two seconds. “When you can have a DNR check and it only takes 10 minutes to do, it seems like having GPS is a no-brainer to us.”

    Employing GPS does more than just help meet DNR requirements, Shipman says. “The hog farmers who are our customers like the system, too. They can come in and look at the maps we produce, and determine how much fertilizer they need to apply. It helps when the farmers we are doing work for already have been ‘GPS-ed’ and have their own grids. We can take their grids and put them over our grids and increase or decrease the manure application rate as needed in specific areas.”

    That is an important feature at a time of rising commercial fertilizer costs; now more so than in the recent past, farmers only want to apply as much fertilizer as needed to get an optimum crop. This augurs well for the more effective use of manure in terms of nutrient management, and a more professional and precise approach to its application.

    That could to lead to growing pressure from customers—the farm operations—for commercial manure haulers and applicators to employ GPS.

page16Mark Shipman figures their
average application rate is now about 4,000 gallons to the acre. “It’s
become far more tailored to the farmers and where they want to put the
manure,” he says.

    “Ten years ago, 6,000 gallons of manure to the acre was a base spread. Now, with all the rules and regulations and limitations on nitrogen and phosphate, it is much less.” Shipman figures their average rate is now about 4,000 gallons to the acre, and they applied some 32 million gallons that way in 2004. “It’s become far more tailored to the farmers and where they want to put the manure.”

    Just as farm operations carefully plan out their commercial fertilizer application, they are increasingly applying that same precision to manure applications. “What’s nice about our GPS set-up is that ten minutes after I’m done, we can tell the farmer how many gallons we have applied, right down to one-tenth of a gallon.”

    Shipman notes that most of the commercial manure haulers around their area in northern Iowa do not have GPS, but he figures there is going to be pressure on them to make the move. “The value of the manure is becoming more important, and applying it properly, with the rising costs of commercial fertilizer.” Fertilizer applicators are already employing GPS on a very broad basis.

    GPS systems have come a long way since the Shipmans bought their first unit. Based on their experience, Shipman advises operators to make sure they get good, reliable equipment, and that it has all the features they need. And it’s important to go with a company that will service the equipment and update the software regularly.

    Ag Leader does exactly that for them, sending them updates every six months to a year. “The aftermarket service for your GPS system is extremely critical.” With Ag Leader’s help and on his own initiative, Shipman has adapted their GPS systems over the years so they are more tailored to their operations.

    While Ag Leader receives a lot of praise from Shipman for their systems and support, he notes that GPS systems in general have advanced significantly over the years. “I’ve done a fair amount of tweaking on our system through the years, but these days you can put a system on a tank fairly easily, ordering a new tank and having GPS, a controller and gallon meter added to it.”

    They have tried to keep their GPS and associated manure application systems simple. While they have a core group of longer-term, experienced operators—“that helps us tremendously,” he says—the Shipmans also employ part-time drivers who may not be as up to speed in terms of technology.

    “It can be tough to find good people who know what they are doing when you are dealing with pulling tanks and operating GPS systems. We’ve got it down to the point where the GPS system is fairly easy to figure out. It’s kind of a no-brainer approach; you drop the tool bar and you go.” However, all drivers are trained and certified every year for manure application as required by the DNR.

    The Shipmans have a unique perspective on the manure hauling business in that they have their own 7,000-head hog finishing operation, and do their own hauling in addition to doing contract hauling for other farm operators. “We’ll move anywhere from three to five millions gallons of our own manure every year, so we see both sides of the operation.”

page17The Shipmans’ manure hauling
business has helped to diversify their own farm operations, especially
in lean times when hog prices are down. “It’s helped us out
tremendously,” says Mark Shipman.

    The manure hauling business has helped to diversify their farm operations, especially in lean times when hog prices are down. “It’s helped us out tremendously.”

    Many of their farmer-clients are in the 1.5 million gallons a year range, although some are larger. One customer is four to five million gallons a year, and two are seven million gallons each. Most of their customers are single barn sites, with the largest having four sites. “We have some big guys, but we have a lot of small guys too.”

    And while the Shipmans employ the latest technology, they operate the old fashioned way in one aspect of their business; their handshake is their bond. “We do not do any written contracts. When we say we are going to haul a pit, we will haul it even if takes all year to do it.”

    And their focus on doing a quality job has paid off. “All the customers we are hauling for now have been with us since the day we started.” Doing the job right is the top priority for their clients. “They want the field covered to its maximum extent. I’d say 99 percent of it is in doing the job right.”

    When application conditions are right, they run 24/7, with two 12-hour shifts, to take advantage of weather windows.

    They tried doing three eight-hour shifts, but it proved difficult to manage the larger group of employees required for three shifts. And as anyone applying manure knows, the work hours can be unpredictable, due to weather. “That goes along with the business. It’s not a whole lot different than farming—the weather conditions control when you can work.”

    They started out their commercial operation with a single 6,000-gallon Balzer tank and a Big A Terra-Gator back in 1994. They currently run four Balzer tanks, including their original 6,000-gallon unit, and three 6,350-gallon tanks. The pulling power comes from Case International 8940 tractors. They have two 58-foot Balzer lagoon pumps, and four Doda vertical pumps for pit work. They also have a spider pump for doing work in aboveground storage structures, such as Harvestores.

page18_pic2The Shipmans use Ag Leader PF
3000 GPS units. The AG Leader GPS mapping system
delivers extremely detailed application information, with samples every
two seconds.

    The Shipmans started out just with the lagoon pumps, but found there was a need to do more pit work with the growing number of barns that were fully slatted, with manure pits underneath.

    These days, the Shipman brothers are looking to upgrade their equipment, and will likely be purchasing new tanks in the very near future. And while the Balzer tanks have served them well over the years, Mark Shipman says they will be looking at the full range of tanks in the market, and the after-market services offered, to make sure they get the right equipment to meet their needs for the future.

    And those needs are heavy duty. Each of their current tanks, says Shipman, has probably applied 40 million gallons over its life. “That is a lot of bouncing around and stress. With a normal farm operation, it would take 100 years to do that amount of work.”

    One of the changes they are likely to see in the future, and that their equipment is currently able to accommodate, is variable rate application. Some clients are already thinking along these lines, says Shipman. “As an industry, we are not quite there yet. With the cost of manure and application being reasonably cheap, we will not see that for a while. But when it comes, we’ll be ready.”


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